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Interviews

Marian McPartland: Living Through the History

By Published: June 1, 2009
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The Sixties

AAJ: When rock began supplanting jazz as the music of youth, you briefly worked with Benny Goodman. Was this doubly hard, considering his genre of jazz? It seems there would be an odd juxtaposition between the times and what he was known for. What was your association like?

MM: I thought I was going to play very well for him, but he didn't like my playing. I guess I still had elements of bebop in my playing, and he didn't want that. It was the year that John Kennedy got shot, and that ended the tour. Although I remember that one time I said to Benny, "Benny I know you don't like my playing. Why did you hire me?" He looked at me in sort of astonishment and said, "I'm damned if I know."

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Piano Jazz

AAJ: You are probably best known to the more casual jazz fan for your NPR show Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. How did this show come about?

MM: Alec Wilder had a show featuring singers like Margaret Whiting, Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
b.1926
vocalist
—people like that. His show lasted about a year and then they were looking for somebody else. Alec actually recommended me, although he always denied that he did.

So we recorded Piano Jazz. We thought we would last a few months. Sure enough, it went on for a couple of years. We got sponsored by Exxon and just kept on going. We had not only piano players, we had singers, all manner of different musicians, and we still do.

We just had a big party at Dizzy's club to celebrate thirty years of Piano Jazz, and we're still going on. We've got two shows next week and two in June. People keep coming along. We keep trying to find young people, and we've succeeded with some of the people like Taylor Eigsti, who was just a kid when he was on Piano Jazz.

AAJ: How did you decide upon the format, and were you given creative carte blanche from the get-go?

MM: We just decided that was the thing to do. If we just had two pianos, with me and one guest, it would work out well. And it did!

The producer and I always talk and decide certain things we will do. Mainly it's me deciding how we'll do it and what guests to get. I'll figure out somebody and call up Shari [Hutchinson]. I'll see if she agrees that we should have that person on.

We just start very informal. We sit down and figure out some tunes. I play and the guest plays; we talk in between. It's very informal.

AAJ: Mary Lou Williams was your first guest, some twenty years after you both appeared in the Great Day in Harlem picture. The list of your guests over the years reads like jazz royalty. Was there ever an artist you wanted on the show but it just did not happen?

Marian McPartlandMM: We started out with Mary Lou Williams, Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor
1921 - 2010
piano
, John Lewis
John Lewis
John Lewis
b.1920
piano
, anybody and everybody that we could get. Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
always said, "Oh Marian you must understand, I can't do the show." He said that for years. Finally, I wanted to go to a concert of his at Carnegie Hall, so I called up his manager and asked if he could get me two tickets. That seemed to be the magic time because Keith then said he would do the show. He did it and it was a wonderful show, just a couple of years ago.

I am still trying to get Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
, but I don't know if I will ever get him. He has said he'll do the show but he hasn't set a date yet, so we shall see.

AAJ: How far into the show's history did you start to have non-piano playing guests?

MM: Oh, I don't know. We had a producer who was very strict about only liking certain kinds of piano players. I wanted to have Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
on and he didn't like that idea. After he died, the new producer Shari Hutchinson took over and she has been doing the show with me ever since.

We got started right away, having people like Dizzy [Gillespie], singers, we had Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
b.1958
banjo
. We had various other instruments like vibes; we had Lionel Hampton on the show. We've even had people that don't play. We had Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff
b.1925
because he was such a good journalist, such a good talker. I did all the playing; he and I talked about different things. It was a very good show even though the guest didn't play.

AAJ: Didn't you once have Studs Terkel on?

MM: Oh sure. As a matter of fact, it is coming up sometime in June; I just read it in the catalog. I used to go and do interviews with Studs every time I was in Chicago. I have several of them that he left for me when he died and now they will be on NPR, which I am so thrilled to see.

AAJ: Do you have a preference in regards to what instrument a guest plays?

MM: It is more about the artist himself. I may like the instrument or I might not like the instrument, but like the guest. I usually like the instrument too; I can't think of anything I really don't like. We wind up liking everything we've done, believe it or not.

AAJ: What was your personal favorite episode?

MM: Probably Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
. I loved that show and I love Bill; he was a great friend.

AAJ: You are still taping twenty six episodes a year. How has the show changed over the years? Has the advent of better studio technology impacted the ease with which a show can be done at all?

MM: First of all by having all these various types of guests, but otherwise it hasn't changed that much. We've changed pianos and we don't have organ anymore. It really basically is the same idea of two people talking and playing. Sometimes what they do is different. You get some fabulous technical player like Denny Zeitlin
Denny Zeitlin
Denny Zeitlin
b.1938
piano
—my god I was going to faint when I heard him play, he was so terrific. I had to try to keep up with that. There are people that I have to really work to do a good job with them.

AAJ: Although jazz is now somewhat outside the (commercial) popular culture, have trends affected the show at all?

MM: Yeah, we've had people that you wouldn't call jazz: Walter Becker
Walter Becker
Walter Becker
b.1950
guitar
and Donald Fagen
Donald Fagen
Donald Fagen
b.1948
keyboard
. When we had Steely Dan
Steely Dan
Steely Dan
b.1972
band/orchestra
on, people wrote in and said, "Is this jazz?" but it was jazz. They were two guys that really loved jazz. They were so thrilled that I knew Duke Ellington that we spent half the show talking about Duke. I just loved those guys. There are so many newer people that are so very interesting.


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